What are the foci of the prisoner’s complaints? The first is a common gripe—working in the prisons I heard it all the time— overcrowding, terrible food, general hassling and cruelty by staff—these are the tinder that has historically sparked so many uprisings.
The second is more arcane and much more serious: indefinite solitary confinement. I have had inmates in my writing groups who had spent as much as twenty years in solitary confinement. Ten, fifteen years was not uncommon. In solitary one is kept twenty-three hours a day in a six foot by eight cell, usually without windows. One inmate in my class had spent seventeen years in solitary. “Could you do that and remain sane?” he said to me one day during class. I tried to joke about it, telling him I’m a writer and it would give me plenty of time to write. He didn’t find my reply funny.
The prisoner’s demands in this current hunger strike are relatively modest: they ask that solitary be limited to five years. Five years locked in a windowless cell with virtually no contact of any form with the outside! There are currently ten thousand inmates in solitary in California, three thousand for life. The UN has called it torture when someone is held in solitary confinement for more than fifteen days. The suicide rate of prisoners in solitary confinement is eight times the general population average. Hallucinations and mental breakdowns occur in virtually half of the long-term solitary prisoners.
Shane Bauer, a journalist, had been imprisoned in Iran for twenty-six months, four of them in solitary. He recently stated that nothing in his life was more brutal than the time he spent in solitary—four months.
He toured prisons in California and found the solitary confinement areas appalling. Iran was a cakewalk compared to what the California inmates had to endure. He was shaken and angered and determined to do something for the inmates. He has become a passionate voice for prison reform.
When I first went to work in the maximum-security units of California’s Central Valley prisons, I assumed, like most, that everyone was guilty and everyone was some sort of monster. All around me, and I hear it to this day, people declare that those in prison are getting only what they deserve; if they can’t do the time, don’t do the crime; bread and water is too good for them; solitary is too good for them. Put them in a dungeon and throw the key away.
My work teaching prisoners, many of them murderers, altered the way I looked at them. After getting to know these men, seeing how cramped, harsh, and desperate their lives were I changed. I came to realize that there was a wide variance in what these men had done and their level of guilt. It was obvious that there were some who could be classified as monsters, who should have some form of stringent imprisonment; I set the number arbitrarily as five to ten percent. Another five to ten percent were, if not wholly innocent, relatively innocent, overcharged. (Indeed, I suspect some were completely innocent.) A man is in a bar room brawl. He kills someone with a punch. He should have been charged with manslaughter; instead he’s hit with first-degree murder. He’s poor, often uneducated, has bare bones legal representation; he’s convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Five to ten percent, I estimate, fall into that category. Ten percent monsters, ten percent, relatively innocent; the rest cover a continuum between the worst of the human race to those who are salvageable people, some overcharged, some even innocent.
The glaring problem, as I see it, is that they’re all, for the most part lumped together, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Invariably, if you come into the prison system not so bad, the really bad are going to force you to rethink your priorities. If you want to survive, you learn how to be ugly.
One of my inmate students at Tehachapi, Ken Hartman, has become an activist in prison. He’s serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for having killed a homeless man in a Long Beach, California park while high on alcohol and drugs. He hit the man once; the man went down, cracked his head, and died. Hartman was charged with first-degree murder, had a public defender, and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole– The Big Bitch as the inmates call it. (Little Bitch– life with possible parole.)
In my class, he worked on a book about his life. It was a massive tome—the manuscript was over a thousand pages—and it gave you a startling idea of how someone descends into crime and imprisonment and how they eventually redeem themselves. A version of the book, centering on his prison life, was published in 2009. It’s called Mother California: A Story of redemption Behind Bars and it’s very, very strong, garnered exceptional reviews, and in 2010 won the Eric Hoffer Award for a memoir.
Ken and I used to talk about the uneven levels of brutality and guilt among inmates and the way the system thrust them all together. Ken came up with an idea for having “Honor Yards”, where those who were intent on bettering themselves even in the brutal prison system, would be housed on a special yard, an honor yard, where they could have training and classes and freedom from brutality and coercion. His idea was adapted at California’s Lancaster Prison. Hartman wrote about his experiences in prison and this program in his essay “A Prisoners’ Purpose”, which won one of the John Templeton Foundation’s 2004 Power of Purpose awards.
I came on to Ken’s honor yard and taught some classes there and the atmosphere was so different from what I had come to expect on prison yards that I was astounded and moved and encouraged. Ken Hartman had helped these men to preserve their humanity, to become more compassionate, responsible, caring. They were reading and writing and involved in projects that deepened their awareness and respect for their fellow inmates.
I hope the present hunger strike has a positive effect. No one should have to endure years and years of solitary confinement. And those prison inmates who are intent on reforming themselves, redeeming themselves, should be given a way of doing it. I always felt the purpose of my classes in prison were to help these often brutal, emotionally stunted, angry, dangerous men, to re-discover their humanity. Art does that. Art touches and awakens the best that is in us.
This should be society’s aim in the prison system. We will all become better when the worst of us are given hope. I read somewhere once that justice without mercy is not justice. We must become more human and more just.
More of my work with inmates can be seen in my one-man show, Murderers Are My Life.